Contrary to popular cliches, a film noir doesn't have to be in set on the mean, rain-slicked backstreets of a cramped, malevolent city, nor does it even have to be in black-and-white ("noir" is really a world-view than a palette). And although purists may argue otherwise, a movie need not have been produced during the tumultuous years of WWII and its immediate aftermath to be considered a true "noir." Case in point:
Violent Saturday, a brightly colored, black-hearted look at crime and the American character from 1955 that's just now being re-released in a sparkling new 35mm print. This rarely seen pulp masterpiece was not only shot in blazing DeLuxe Color and ultra-wide CinemaScope, it's set in a seemingly idyllic desert mining town, and most of it unfolds in bright, broad daylight -- the better to see the corruption festering just below the happy surface. Noir? You bet.
The Yale-educated Fleischer -- son of the maverick animator Max Fleischer -- kept busy right through 1989, making stuff like Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja (he died in 2006), but back in the '40s and '50s he made as string of B-noirs that rank among the best of the genre. The most well-known is probably the drum-tight Narrow Margin, but Fleischer also gave us the underseen Armored Car Robbery and the excellent Rogue Cop, about rampaging policeman ( Robert Taylor) who makes Bad Lieutenant look like Officer Friendly. (Fleischer also made a number of good, moody crime films durning the '60s and '70s, like true-crime classics The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place, and the solid Elmore Leonard adaptation Mr. Majestyk, starring Charles Bronson.) Violent Saturday, however, just might be Fleischer's best noir; it's certainly his most expansive. Adapted by Sydney Boehm (The Big Heat, Shock Treatment) from William L. Heath's dime-store classic, the film is ostensibly about a bank heist the small but bustling Arizona mining town of Bradenville, where copper is king. Three "salesmen" -- ringleader Stephen McNally, bespectacled cold fish J. Carrol Naish and an unforgettable Lee Marvin, playing a tweaking, benzedrine-sniffing hood with a bad nose-spray habit and a grudge against the world -- check into the Bradenville Hotel then case the bank, which they plan to rob just before noon on the following day -- a Saturday, natch.
But the real action is in the town itself. The town's copper scion ( Richard Egan) is a sloppy, unhappily married drunk; his wife ( Margaret Hayes) is the country-club slut who's sleeping with an oily Don Juan (He: "Why do you play golf?" She: "I look good in sweaters"); the prim librarian (played by the wonderful Sylvia Sydney) is a thief and a blackmailer, and the town's milquetoast bank manager ( Tommy Noonan) is a sweaty, drooling peeping tom. Even the ostensible hero ( Victor Mature), the mine superintendent, is crippled by a sense of his own inadequate masculinity: He served on the home front instead of the beaches of Iwo Jima, and his disillusioned young son knows it. Twin Peaks has nothing on this town. Did I mention Ernest Borgnine as a pitchfork-weilding Amish farmer? Tough stuff, indeed, and in true noir fashion, that happy ending is anything but.
If you're lucky enough to be in New York City over the next week, do yourself a favor and head down to Film Forum, where Violent Saturday will be playing through March 6. Otherwise, keep an eye peeled and say prayer for an upcoming DVD release.
BTW, I'm always on the lookout for a good noir. What are your favorites?